Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2015 (498 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Plenty has changed over the past century. What hasn’t changed is the pride the people of East St. Paul feel for their community, and their desire to see it thrive over the next hundred years.
When the municipality of St. Paul was first established, in 1888, bison still roamed the prairie where subdivisions and luxury homes stand today. When the municipality was divided in two less than 30 years later, split down the middle by the Red River, the buffalo were gone, with agriculture and industry having taken firm root in the region.
As the RM of East St. Paul begins centennial celebrations which will continue through 2016, the market garden tradition of the area remains in the margins, eclipsed by new housing developments. The gravel pits are largely emptied. Instead of jobs, the community now benefits from an inspired reclamation of the pits.
With an increased demand for housing and an aging population, the RM faces some unique challenges moving forward. But as things change, the more they stay the same. Lifelong residents maintain that community spirit is as strong as ever, while looking forward to what the next hundred years has in store for East St. Paul.
East and West St. Paul became their own respective municipalities on Nov. 3, 1915. East St. Paul held its first council meeting two months later, on Jan. 4, 1916. Settled by original Red River settlers on narrow lots along the river north to Selkirk, many of the original indigenous inhabitants remained in the area for many years, particularly near the Red River and Birds Hill.
Birds Hill, the village focal point of the RM, was named after a Dr. Curtis James Bird, a retired Hudson’s Bay Company man who drew up Manitoba’s bill of rights alongside provincial founding father Louis Riel. A controversial figure, Bird was tarred and feathered by an angry mob in 1873, presumably on the basis of his opposition to the city of Winnipeg’s incorporation. Bird owned the land around the area, selling much of it in 1883 to the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which used the area to mine gravel. The arrival of the CPR’s main line to the area also opened it up for further agricultural development.
Indeed, the low lying lands between the Red River and the gravel hills proved ideal for farming, and soon lots across East St. Paul were full up with market gardeners.
Bob Omeniuk was born in East St. Paul in 1952. His parents moved to the area in 1933, first buying a farm on Rebeck Road before moving to property at 396 Hoddinott Rd. in 1949. The Hoddinott family first homesteaded the property in 1883.
"They sold that property to Mr. Ernie Wrigler, who sold it to my dad," Omeniuk recalled.
By 1955, the Omeniuks farmed 60 acres, most of which went to market. With a family of 11 to feed, there was always something to do.
"Dad was fully immersed in market gardening," Omeniuk said. "We had a cow, a couple chickens and pigs and that for food in the early years. My sisters would be milking the cow twice a day, that sort of thing. We never went hungry."
According to Omeniuk, the whole area surrounding his family’s property was either market gardens or pasture for horses or livestock until the late 1950s. At that time, the north side of Hoddinott began to subdivide into one-acre lots, while the south side remained agricultural. In 1955, there were 18 entrances off Hoddinott Road between Henderson to the west and Birds Hill to the east. By 1967 there were 86.
Omeniuk said "a lot of those people moved into work for Imperial Oil," which had established a refinery off Henderson in 1951. The refinery closed up in the 1970s, but Imperial maintains a storage facility on the land to this day.
While the history of market gardening in East St. Paul is well known, with many of the newer developments — Pritchard Farm Southlands, for example — being named for pioneering farming families, the area was home to a vibrant fur industry early in the 20th century as well.
"Various farmers had these mink or fox farms on the side, to raise for fur to sell to the clothing industry," Lorna Wenger, author of the forthcoming East St. Paul Centennial 1916-2016: A Celebration of History, Stories & Community Spirit. While there are no fox or mink farms remaining in East St. Paul, one lone "fox tower" still stands, on private property, just off Henderson Highway. The historical architectural oddities were designed to keep an eye on mating habits of foxes during the winter.
The gravel pits
Mining was arguably the second most important industry for East St. Paul. In 1882, the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s main line passed through the townsite of Birds Hill in order to haul large loads of gravel. Many of the early roads and railway beds in Manitoba were built with this "Birds Hill gold."
"Gravel sleighs were as common as trucks are today and some boys would ‘catch a ride’ on them and not be seen again all day," recalled Lawrence Routly in Heritage.
"Every piece of gravel that came out of there came right through Garven Road," confirmed Omeniuk, who drove a gravel truck himself for many years. "We used to have three restaurants in Birds Hill because of all the gravel trucks and the guys wanting coffee, in the ’50s and ’60s."
While the gravel pits were owned by various interests over the course of their hundred-plus years in operation, the Swiston family ran the show at the pits on Birds Hill Road from the 1960s until the last load was scraped out in the late ’90s.
"Two brothers, Bill Swiston who is deceased, and his brother Don Swiston Sr., who’s in his 80s, were the last owners," Wegner explained. "At the end, it was a desolate looking mar on the land. The Swistons took some of the profits from the business and put it towards rehabilitation."
The Swistons’ former pits are now known as Silver Springs Park. Instead of rock scraped bare and heavy machinery "marring" the landscape, walking paths fringed with native grasses wind through a series of shallow spring fed ponds.
"The RM took ownership of it, and the whole community uses it now," Wegner added.
Community spirit is a trait that defines East St. Paul.
"Everything’s always been community minded, everyone pitched in," Omeniuk said.
"It’s a community that is very warm, inviting," said Wegner, an East Kildonan resident who has spent a lot of time lately getting to know the people who call East St. Paul home while writing and researching East St. Paul Centennial. "They’re proud of their past."
Apart from common economic drivers, East St. Paul came together throughout the year to enjoy leisure activities, like baseball in the summer and hockey and curling in the winter. Bob Omeniuk recalled the days when the local Legion sponsored the baseball team, and how the first community centre was little more than a two-room shack.
"Mr. Rebeck donated his chip stand to become our community club," Omeniuk said. "It was basically a two-room building. That was it. It was very simple, but we were happy to have it."
"When we were talking about building the existing arena (in the 1970s), it was the people in the community," Omeniuk continued. When the new rink was built in 1971, Omeniuk said the Swiston family supplied the equipment. Local truckers, Omeniuk included, hauled the gravel, which the Lester family donated. "That’s the way we did it. The first set of boards were put up by just guys who were interested in hockey. We had a chain link fence around the boards. The piping and welding were put in by local guys who could weld. Best Way Fencing did the stringing of the chain link fence. It was all volunteers. It was just community minded. That’s how we did things."
A second century
Today, East St. Paul is home to over 9,000 residents, growing nearly three-fold since 1981, when the population was nearly 3,600. The subdivision of agricultural land ramped itself up in the 1980s, starting with the south side of Hoddinott Road and spreading across the RM, from the Pritchard Farm Road to formerly sprawling river lots.
"That rural urban feel, that proximity to Winnipeg makes us a natural bedroom community," said Shelley Hart, mayor of East St. Paul.
Headed into a second century, the RM of East St. Paul will have to grapple with a growing population and a subsequent demand for accompanying services.
"Our goal is to build a stronger business base," Hart said. "We (also) need to address residential options. Many residents would like to move to condos. They don’t want to leave community, but want to downsize. The other end is when young adults leave their family home, they have to leave community to establish themselves. And we want to maintain our unique and desirable way of living."
"I love East St. Paul," Omeniuk mused. "I’ve spent basically my entire life here. It’s changed over the years, but it’s home. This is my home. I hope, at some point, there will be seniors home or something like that. I’d like to be able to say I lived my whole life here, and died here."